How to drive the IT steering committee forward

If IT is integral to the business, isn’t that by definition alignment? Seems like we’re not quite there yet. And that’s where the role of the IT steering committee still has value in helping us get there.

Perhaps it’s the terminology; “steering” implies governance, now done at the executive level.  “Advisory” or “user” are alternatives, but don’t capture the concept either, especially when taken literally.  
Regardless of what you call it, what role should your IT committee play? For the CIO not at the executive table, this committee can have a key role in developing strategies based on the real needs of the company, as the participants will likely be the line managers who actually see that the work gets done.  For the CIO reporting to the CFO, this offers a valuable avenue to understand the needs of the business and gain support for initiatives at the operational level before taking them into the budget approval process.  Plans having a broader base of support are not as easily dismissible when they may also come to the executive table from a business unit head.
As your committee matures, individual business unit leaders will take over the CIO job of enforcing standards on the wayward parties by peer pressure, reinforcing the overall organizational view which is so easy to lose in the day-to-day running of a department.  Operational managers are the meat-in-the-sandwich, focused on shoveling out the stables while reporting to their management about how well the horse can run.  As CIO, you already well understand that conflict and the need to focus on both operational and strategic levels at the same time as you continue to learn the business and eliminate those TLAs (three-letter acronyms) from your vocabulary.  Some of your colleagues may need help.
The internal steering committee is only as good as its participation and agenda.  If your committee is to be attended by the line managers, but those who show up are their deputies and not empowered to make decisions, then it’s time for a re-boot of the process.  It’s easy to get lulled into a sense of complacency when most IT services are running well, the SLAs are being met and the only problems beyond a “normal” noise level are the few departments who will seemingly complain about anything.  That’s a danger signal.   Without the IT committee, any substantive issues will be tabled at the only other cross-functional forum available: the executive table, making their resolution a directed process.   

Re-booting to renew interest and commitment to the IT committee process will be different for each organization, but a quick review of the meeting agenda may offer some clues.  Are most of the agenda items routine reporting that is also (or could be) distributed?  Of the rest of the agenda, how much is related to the future IT needs of the business, versus last month’s service disruption reports?  Not that understanding what happened and got fixed isn’t important, but everyone’s time is tight and the IT committee has to show value to get the right people in attendance and more importantly, get them engaged.  What about polling your committee members for their ideas on what IT’s priorities should be for next year’s budget long in advance of the budget cycle? Then at the meeting, getting those people to speak to those priorities and encourage discussion.  Or a review of new technology, especially that emerging from the consumer side, and brainstorming how that could be used for the business? A well thought out communications plan for your IT committee can pre-empt the need to react to requests coming from the executive table, seemingly out of left field.  If done well, the IT committee becomes the process to examine those that do come via that route, reducing the number of requests that appear to be end runs to the established policies.  That is another valuable use of the committee: to determine whether those policies are still appropriate.   

Another valuable role of the IT committee is communication.  Items raised there offer an early warning system for the CIO of service delivery gaps or changes in the business that require IT’s attention.  By creating an open forum, you gain valuable perspective on what your service delivery looks like to the business.  Having great SLA numbers may be a fact, but the IT department’s performance (and your job) is based on your users’ perception.  An IT committee facilitates communication, business unit to business unit.  In every organization there are a few business units that don’t play by the rules or prefer to do their own thing, creating disruptions and negative feedback across the entire company, not just for IT. IT’s most difficult role is communicating across the organization at all levels. 
Assuming you have informed representation at the executive, and your troops are doing their job of working within the business units and running good service management processes, the IT committee offers a forum to enhance your relationships with and among the managers of the business units.  The best value for all parties in IT committee meetings is when the businesses are doing the talking.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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